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Dallas Jessup made 'Just Yell Fire' to teach young women to defend themselves

Dallas Jessup was just a teenager when she made the video 'Just Yell Fire.' Today she's continuing that mission to help girls and young women stay safe.

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Dallas Jessup looks through a digital camera. The recent college graduate has already produced two films that teach basic self-defense.

Just Yell Fire

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Originally, she was simply trying to help her classmates, friends she saw every day in the hallways at school. Dallas Jessup had no idea that her video on self-defense, which teaches girls and young women how to fend off abductors and potential rapists, would grab national attention.

Or that when she was a 14-year-old, ponytailed freshman at a private all-girls high school in Portland, Ore., she'd fly to New York to be a guest on the "Good Morning America" TV show – just a few months after her self-defense video was first posted online by her mother.

Or that she'd fly to India, Canada, and across the United States, piling up more than 200,000 miles as she put on self-defense clinics. Or that her picture would be on 12 million bags of Doritos. Or that she'd speak in front of the US Congress.

"Really, I had no idea all this would happen," Ms. Jessup says from her home in Vancouver, Wash. "It's been amazing. I just thought that maybe I could help my friends at school."

It's been an unlikely journey for Jessup. Her 45-minute video, made in 2006 when she was just 14, has been downloaded 1.8 million times from her Web page, www.justyellfire.com. A year ago, she finished her second video, targeting college-aged girls.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in May with a degree in communications, Jessup plans to continue directing her nonprofit organization, called Just Yell Fire. "I love what I do," she says. "I love doing presentations. Working one-on-one with the girls is one of the most rewarding things I do."

Her journey began at age 10 when she announced at the dinner table one evening that she wanted to start dating. Her parents' approval was conditional: First, she'd have to earn a black belt in martial arts, they told her.

"We didn't think she'd ever do that," says her mom, Maggie Jessup.

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Eventually, with bruises to prove it, Dallas did receive a black belt in tae kwon do at age 13. Shortly after that, her mother showed her a video about the abduction of an 11-year-old girl in Florida.

"Dallas wanted to do something," Mrs. Jessup says. "She wanted to help."

It was a typical reaction for her.

While most people don't move beyond thinking "isn't that horrible," as a child Jessup often had shown a willingness to take action. Her father, Jay Jessup, remembers an experience at his daughter's ballet class when she was 6 years old.

A new girl, whose family had just moved to the US from Pakistan, came in wearing clothes not culturally in style in the US. "The other girls were making fun of this girl," he recalls. "Dallas went to the little girl and made her feel comfortable. Then Dallas went to the father and talked to him about the clothes his daughter was wearing."

At the next ballet practice, the girl came wearing American-style clothes that helped her fit in.

"I can tell you hundreds of stories like that about Dallas," Mr. Jessup says. "She'd go out of her way to do the right thing. She was always that way."

Spurred by the eerie footage of the Florida abduction, Jessup wanted to make a video of herself using martial arts to fend off an abductor. But first her mother insisted that she take a scriptwriting class. The teacher of that class was so impressed with the message of the script that he put her in contact with a Portland film producer, Takafumi Uehara.

Mr. Uehara was also impressed, enough to enlist the help of several more professionals. What had started out as a homemade production turned into a first-class film. The professionals involved donated their time and resources. A video that could easily have cost $500,000 to produce cost about $8,000.

Jessup was the star of the video. She showed how to use martial arts and Filipino street fighting skills to escape attackers. Once, her demonstration was too real: She accidentally injured her pretend attacker, a burly young man, by gouging him in the eye. (Her self-defense techniques target three areas: the eyes, the ears, and the groin.) "He laid there for about 30 minutes," Mr. Jessup says.

From the beginning, Dallas's mother has insisted that the focus be on the message of helping girls defend themselves. And not on her daughter.

"After 'Good Morning America,' everyone was treating her like she was a celebrity," Mrs. Jessup says. "I sat her down. I said, 'Here's the deal: It's not about you. It's about the cause. If you become a diva, I'm out of it.' "

And so it's never been about Jessup. Now, as she is choosing her adult career, her focus still remains on the cause, the message. Her parents are both successful in their careers – her mother worked as a reporter for newspapers in Atlanta and Houston, and her father is a lawyer who now works in industrial real estate.

"This is my passion," Jessup says. "This is what I want to do."

Her self-defense program is making a difference. In her free downloadable videos, she gives 10 defensive steps that a person can use to stop an attacker just long enough to gain time to escape. She named her program Just Yell Fire because, she says, yelling "help" doesn't draw as much attention.

Last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge began offering a physical education class that teaches young women self-defense and uses her video. Jessup has also written a 207-page manual on how to teach self-defense for coaches, teachers, or anyone else.

She also recently taught a classroom of public school teachers in Vancouver, and they will go on to train girls and young women in middle school and high school in her hometown.

That course came about after the abduction and murder of a 13-year-old girl in Vancouver.

"Being able to help girls defend themselves is what it's all about," Jessup says.

It's also all about teaching a 100-pound girl how to escape from a 200-pound attacker, not how to beat the person up.

"Anytime you teach someone to defend themselves, and how to act in a stressful situation, you're providing a benefit," says Beth Anne Steele, an FBI public affairs specialist who knows Jessup. "I think what programs like Dallas's do is make people think through what could potentially be a bad situation, and they practice how they'll react and have a plan."

A commentator on "Fox News Live" said after watching Jessup's video, "It's the most important film your daughter will ever watch." Josh Holloway, an actor who was on "Lost" and who appears in the original film, said about Jessup's self-defense video, "It's saving the world one girl at a time."

She's also received a number of awards, including the National Caring Award, the Jefferson Award for Public Service, and the Seventeen Magazine Mission Award. She was named a CNN Hero in 2007 and is an inductee into the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans.

While Jessup appreciates the news media attention and awards, it's been the personal messages that have motivated her. She's received a handful of thank-you notes from people who shared with her the story of their escape from an abductor.

"The stories we do get are really cool," Jessup says. "It's very rewarding work."

Four years after the girl in Florida was abducted and found dead, her uncle wrote Jessup to say that he had heard of her program and he was thankful for what she was doing.

"That meant so much," Jessup says. "I've had page-long notes saying thank you. [But] that one sentence from him brought it home."

A man from Seattle whose daughter escaped from an abductor because of what she learned from Just Yell Fire also e-mailed Jessup to say thank you. "It's notes like that that keep me going," she says. And feed her commitment to keep even more young women safe.

To learn more, visit JustYellFire.com.

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